Flash, Bang! Unpredictable Nature

Lightning is one of the leading weather-related causes of death in the United States. Follow this advice and reduce your chances of being struck.

Few things are more startling than being outside when a blinding flash of lightning and the deafening crack of thunder explode almost at the same moment. Knowing what to do if you are caught in such a situation can prevent tragedy.

Lightning is not rare; according to National Geographic magazine, it strikes somewhere on the earth’s surface more than 100 times per second, every day. Fortunately, lightning striking a human being is not as common.

Of the 20 million cloud-to-ground strikes that hit the United States every year, only about 1,000 actually strike people, and current estimates of lightning fatalities in the United States range from 60 to 100 per year.

According to the National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI), lightning caused 756 deaths between 1990 and 2003.

Six activities are most commonly associated with individuals being struck by lightning. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), they are:

  • working or playing in open fields
  • engaging in water sports such as boating, fishing, and swimming
  • working outdoors with heavy equipment
  • playing golf
  • talking on the telephone
  • repairing or using electrical appliances.

Scout groups, when hiking, camping, boating, and participating in other outdoor recreation, can be particularly vulnerable.

While the risk of lightning cannot be avoided entirely, it can be minimized, says David Bates, associate director of the BSA’s Boy Scout Division.

For instance, in mountainous areas, plan trek days so that you are not on high exposed ridges or peaks in the afternoon. (NLSI reports the greatest amount of lightning activity occurs between 2 and 6 p.m.)

If you are caught in a storm in a high area or above timberline, leave the exposed area as quickly as possible. Similarly, in inclement weather, choose campsites in protected areas—a forest in a depression, for instance, rather than in an exposed area above tree line.

Move away from any metal objects, such as barbed wire fences, windmills, or electrical lines. Put down metal objects you may be carrying, such as packs with metal frames or trekking poles.

Solitary trees, caves, and overhangs may appear to offer shelter, but in fact, they can actually attract lightning and ground currents. For example, cattle are sometimes killed during storms when they seek shelter under trees.

If caught in a storm, squat down, preferably on top of a sleeping pad. Do not lie down; minimize contact between your body and the ground to avoid being a conduit for ground currents. Members of a group should spread out so they are about 30 feet apart—close enough to call for help, but far enough that arcs of lightning won’t jump from one person to another.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as surefire prevention, Bates cautions. Lightning can and does strike in wooded areas below timberline; it can strike during the day and at night.

“Each situation can be different, depending on where you are,” Bates says. “Objective rules are less important than good judgment and common sense.”

Knowing how close you are to dangerous lightning is important in planning your reaction, but many people often “think lightning is farther away than it is,” notes Ed Woodlock, the BSA national director of health and safety.

To measure lightning’s distance from you in miles, count the seconds between the flash and the sound of thunder. Divide by 5. If the result is less than six, then the storm is too close for safety.

A lightning detection device called StrikeAlert can also determine distance. About the size of a hand-held radio, it reports lightning activity within a 40-mile radius and tracks the direction of the storm. For groups traveling in storm-prone territory, StrikeAlert may be a useful tool, if used responsibly (seewww.strikealert.com).

However, both Bates and Woodlock caution that such a device is no substitute for common sense. While helpful, it possibly could lead to a false sense of security and may even tempt some users to get too close to a storm to “see if it works.”

If lightning strikes a member of your group, immediate treatment is critical. Lightning can cause both burns and cardiac arrest. Check breathing and pulse immediately and administer mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing or CPR.

Even if a victim does not respond, CPR should be continued until the victim recovers or medical help arrives. Any victim of a lightning strike, even if he appears to have recovered, should still seek a medical evaluation.

Karen Berger writes Scouting‘s Outdoor Smarts column. Her latest book is Backpacking and Hiking (DK, 2005).


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